The price of the sweeps - Page 2

Cracking down on the homeless costs taxpayers millions
Is this a crime?
Guardian photo by Neil Motteram

"Does the mayor have compassion fatigue?" he wondered aloud.

The decisions about where a city spends money speak volumes about its values. "Every budget is a moral document," said John Fitzgerald, who enumerated many other uses to which the $2 million could have gone, from placing 1,028 people in three-month residential drug treatment to five new drop-in mental health clinics, 157 new caseworkers, or 10,230 preventable evictions.


Sup. Chris Daly, who attended but did not sponsor the Religious Witness press conference, said, "Not only is the use of police to target homeless people uncompassionate and inhumane, but it's also ineffective." He recalled the first Religious Witness press conference, which denounced then-mayor Frank Jordan's Matrix program, which teamed police officers with social workers to remove homeless people from Union Square and later Golden Gate Park. That program was deemed a failure because it criminalized homeless people and alienated them from helpful services by teaming outreach workers with law enforcement.

"We're repeating a policy that we know is a failure," Daly said. "It's a complete lack of compassion."

Recently Daly made public a memo he obtained from the mayor's office through a public records request. The document outlined a new "downtown outreach plan," similar in sound and structure to Jordan's Matrix. In a Sept. 28 Weekly Report to Newsom's chief of staff, Phil Ginsburg, deputy chief of staff Julian Potter wrote, "The pilot program includes three separate teams of officers and social service staff that work a 15-block area" in two separate shifts patrolling the SoMa district. "In each of the three teams an officer will work in tandem with two social service representatives. Any person committing a crime (littering, encampment, trespassing, urinating, defecating, dumping, blocking sidewalk, intoxication, etc.) will be asked to cease the behavior and enter into services. If the individual resists services the officer will issue a citation."

Though it's reminiscent of the approach that Jordan advocated, both the Operation Outreach team, made of police officers who typically interface with homeless people, and the Homeless Outreach Team, operated by the Department of Human Services, have denied they would accept the approach as Potter penned it.

"I have to be very emphatic," said Dr. Rajesh Parekh, director of HOT. "We are not going to be teamed up with police officers." Though police officers often refer HOT to specific people, he said recent news reports are inaccurate and "in the interest of our clients we've never done shoulder-to-shoulder work."

Lt. David Lazar, who heads the San Francisco Police Department's Operation Outreach, agreed that his officers won't walk in lockstep with the doctors and social workers who are offering services. But the line can get a little fuzzy: "We're there at the same time, but we're not necessarily together," he said. "We're separate in our approach."

"Basically what the memo is proposing is illegally arresting people," Jenny Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, told us.

Under state law, people can't be taken into custody for infractions like urination and littering. But camping illegally can be considered a misdemeanor, and a citation could eventually lead to an arrest and a jury trial. Prosecuting and imprisoning people is far more expensive than providing shelter.

While some see the coupling of enforcement with services as a way to encourage more people to get help, others contend it's not a simple equation.

"I think some people are not always able to say yes the first time we do outreach with them," Parekh said. "I'm hoping that as time goes on we'll be able to persuade them. It's an ongoing process.